By Rick Maze - Staff writer Posted : Monday Feb 13, 2012 11:15:00 EST
In an era of tightened federal budgets, the Veterans Affairs Department has won a 10.5 percent funding increase justified by the return of combat troops to the U.S. and the looming drawdown of the active-duty military.
The Obama administration’s $140.3 billion VA budget request for 2013 forecasts a 9.6 percent increase in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who will seek medical treatment from VA and a 500,000 increase in the number of people filing disability and benefits claims.
It also includes $1 billion to pay for President Obama’s Veterans Job Corps initiative, a major hiring initiative.
The goals are ambitious. VA expects to take in 1.3 million disability claims in 2013, a 100,000 annual increase in claims over 2012, but expects to process 1.4 million claims — which, if successful, would begin to reverse a claims backlog.
VA currently has about 900,000 million claims in processing, with almost 600,000 pending for 125 days or longer, said Todd Grams, VA’s management chief.
“For the first time, eliminating the claims backlog is a workable goal,” Grams said at a Monday news conference. “We will in 2013 process more claims that we bring into the system.”
Grams went even further, predicting that by 2015 no veteran would have to wait longer than 125 days for their benefits claim to be processed.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, appearing briefly at the same news conference, said the budget has a “sense of urgency” to take care of pressing problems such as access to medical care, the pace of processing benefits and resolving veterans’ homelessness.
VA sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the overall 10.5 percent increase is a major victory for Shinseki. With tight federal budgets and concentration on deficit reduction, an increase of about 5 percent was expected.
The biggest overall increase comes in benefits and entitlement spending, a $76.3 billion chunk of the budget that represents a 16.2 percent increase over 2012. Part of that is the $1 billion jobs corps program, but Grams also said more people will be receiving benefits and the average disability compensation payment is expected to be higher.
GI Bill claims also should be processed faster, according to the budget documents. Average processing time has been 23 days; officials hope to cut this to 18 days in 2013, with a long-term goal of cutting it to 10 days.
Overall spending on education benefits is expected to decline under the budget proposal. VA is spending about $2 billion this year on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other veterans and survivor education benefits, but the budget expects costs to drop to $1.85 billion in 2013.
The VA expects to treat 3.6 million veterans in 2013, including about 654,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Grams said. This is a 9.6 percent jump in new veterans, although the overall budget forecasts only a 1.1 percent increase in total patients.
The medical care budget is $52.7 billion in the request, a 4.1 percent increase over the 2012 budget
Initial reaction from key lawmakers was supportive. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said that “at first glance,” the 2013 budget “appears positive given today’s constrained fiscal environment, which is a good step forward.”